Art Gallery of Calgary
Dec 13 — May 21, 2006
By Kay Burns
During a recent trip to Edmonton, I overheard a conversation in the breakfast room of a hotel. Two women who didn't know each well, but were perhaps attending the same conference or some other function, decided to sit together at breakfast. These two acquaintances spent the entire meal discussing their favourite TV shows. I confess to being rather dumbfounded by the fact that the development of a budding friendship revolved solely around mass culture. Yet I'm sure this wasn't an isolated incident. Popular culture has folkloric elements; it's a means for understanding commonalities through repeating the stories of shared experience. Artists have always sought to find ways to respond to and pose critical perspectives on the common elements in the world around them and today many artists seek to critically comment on mundane and overused icons, images, and objects of our time.
Oddly though, Popular, an exhibition that speaks about popular culture, is rife with contradiction and paradox. In order to critically portray the influence of popular culture through art, the act of presentation elevates the mundane and the mainstream to the significant, thereby undermining its own intentions. In offering an exhibition that appeals to a broad range of people and their attraction to popular culture, the Art Gallery of Calgary environment indirectly forces the mainstream into an elitist milieu. The exclusive and sterile gallery context contradicts the critical intent of the work itself.
The notion of critically responding to popular culture seems to lend itself more to some kind of intervention or imposition on a location, not an act of glorifying through presentation of the revered "art object." Nicole Burisch's word pieces (brief idiomatic phrases) created in the transient material of clay slip on the windows and walls outside the entrance to the gallery come the closest to functioning as a kind of intervention, but here the intent associated with that subtle placement is undermined by the larger-than-life documentation photographs within the gallery space. Burisch's work thus becomes an "object" within the exhibition, as if remaining a separate entity in its exterior location wasn't sufficient.
Sarah Adams's one-of-a-kind crafted fibre objects attempt to comment on the ubiquitous presence of toys and imagery in children's mass culture of the 1980s; however, by recreating individual generic toy icons, their object-ness comes across not as a critical perspective on their mass-produced counterparts but a glorification of them. Beany Dootjes borrows the modernist structure of Mondrian's paintings and, through cut and paste construction with the Dick and Jane reading books, revisits popular culture and ideology of the past. In approaches that explore and suggest narrative, David Diviney plays with appropriated images through colour photos, and with meanings of container objects in one of his bucket installations. Craig LeBlanc's highly lacquered sculptural objects and his terry towel accessories reference the overwhelming presence of sports paraphernalia and its associated implications of performance and ability.
Benjiman Kikkert's work is an odd addition to the exhibition. His delicately blown glass objects loosely allude to Alberta's prosperity. Regrettably, these pieces sit under scratched and dirty Plexiglas covers that hinder any kind of contemplative viewing.
Elizabeth Clark's two works are perhaps the most interesting in the context of an exhibition of objects about popular culture. The materials she uses for her oversize garments are commonplace pot scrubbers and steel wool, each carrying a strong tactile presence that speaks not only to sensory understanding and analogy but also to the associated meanings of the object-as-tool in relation to gender roles.
Popular evolved from a call for submissions which drew over over 65 proposals from established and emerging artists. Issues of popular culture are indeed significant for these seven artists, but it is a curious paradox to see how gallery protocol as well as the creative act can impede its own content.